If you’ve spent anytime working in gun-violence prevention, you’ve seen this quotation from Gandhi: “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.”
The quotation is always cited to show that Gandhi supported arming the public against an oppressive government, and that, as a result, Gandhi would have been a card-carrying member of the American NRA.
Even for most casual readers, this doesn’t pass the smell test. Your nose is correct: it misrepresents Gandhi’s position on guns, and does so intentionally.
Gandhi felt that armed resistance was one step above outright cowardice, and nothing more; and he never supported cowardice.
Here are the details.
In the quotation cited, Gandhi refers to India’s Arms Act of 1878—the Act stated that Europeans were allowed to carry weapons in India, while the indigenous population, the Indians, were not.
Gandhi’s quotation comes from a World War I recruitment pamphlet that he published in 1918 after he had moved to South Africa to begin his career as a young British-educated lawyer. He is attempting to convince the British colonial government that Indians could be trusted to serve in the War as reliably as the British—his plea for access to arms is a plea for a broad-based civil rights and equality in the eyes of England, a plea that the British, of course, never granted.
But it's a plea that many colonial subjects have historically made: to be accepted on equal terms by their oppressors.
Gandhi felt that serving the British wartime cause—Gandhi was an ambulance driver and never touched a firearm, stating flatly that “a rifle this hand will never fire”—would convince the British to extend to them the most basic civil rights.
But of course Gandhi himself, as he stated, would never carry or fire a weapon.
Of course, this ploy failed, and Gandhi, who had been gradually developing his theory of nonviolence, ultimately embraced it as the only means to drive the British from India.
And that ploy succeeded, when carrying firearms did not.
Here is the crucial point that the gun-extremists never mention: When Gandhi’s early nonviolent rallies in India broke out in violence, he learned that few people were capable of the highest forms of nonviolence. And he assigned those advocates who supported nonviolence, but were incapable of being subjected to violence without retaliation, to other tasks: organizing, telegraphing, stuffing envelopes.
He kept them off the front-lines of nonviolent engagement. Martin Luther King Jr. learned this essential principle from Gandhi, and organized his protests in a similar manner.
Paradoxically, then, Gandhi’s view of armed self-defense was reserved only for those who were incapable of nonviolence, the superior form of social activism and political revolution. But Gandhi can speak for himself:
I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence . . . I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor . . . But I believe that nonviolence is infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness is more manly than punishment (emphasis mine).
So the gun to Gandhi was a visible symbol of weakness and fear—one step above cowardice.
To put it plainly: carrying firearms, in Gandhi’s viewpoint, was a frank, but forgivable, admission of weakness and cowardice.
Historically, those who were unable to transcend this fear and cowardice were the majority, and that is why Gandhi advocated self-defense for them.
And that is why those who currently use that quotation in the current gun debate would be considered cowards by Gandhi, but quickly forgiven for their cowardice.
Those who transcend this weakness, as history attests, are few in number. Gandhi understood this, made allowances for it, and it is why, when we when we have long forgotten those who took up arms and responded to violence with violence, we remember the practitioners of nonviolence: Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc, Paul the Apostle, Thomas Becket, St. Peter, Thomas Cranmer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Desmond TuTu, the Dalai Lama, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandala, to name only a few.